Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

First Day of School– Glimpses from Berkeley’s Pacific School of Religion from a middle-aged UU minister


Monday, first day of the week of new student orientation

Leave my hosts’ home at 7:20 AM and walk in the cool blowing fog from the Berkeley hills down to Holy Hill, where 9 seminaries sit just above the U of California campus Arrive D’Autremont dining hall at 8:00 AM. A 2nd year student organizer of the orientation welcomes me, tells me to help myself to buffet in other room, mentions eggs, French toast.  I go to the room, look at the steam tables, get oatmeal and yogurt, cantaloupe, pineapple, rice.  Skip the grits and the many slices of bacon and sausages.  Check under other steel lids—only hot water.  Must not have the eggs ready yet.  Eat wholesome food, chat with tall young white man from Wisconsin, Brown U. grad,  UCC preacher’s kid, African American mother of 19 year old son, moved here from Detroit with partner (a therapist), is pursuing Metropolitan Community Church ordination.

Chat with two other middle aged white women and a gregarious 2nd year man from the Episcopal seminary.  I see people with scrambled eggs.  I see someone come out of the kitchen with eggs.  Go in, learn that you write your order on a slip and they cook it:  pancakes or French toast, white or wheat; eggs any style, omelette with many choices, tofu scramble.  Get two eggs over medium, telling myself I can have pancakes tomorrow.

Chef Andy calls out the order or person’s name when it’s up, but I go back to table and come back much later.  Grab my plate, add some hash browns.  Stop, remember to call out “thank you,” and hear “you’re welcome.”  At the table, I ask:  “Is it like this all the time here?  You can just order what you want? No extra charge?”  Yes.  What took me so long to come here!

UU colleague Sarah M. S., also a D. Min. student, shows up late.  Lovely, gifted and gracious young mother.  I come up to her and call out:  “Hello, new girl at school!”  We hug. Younger kid is 6, starts kindergarten Wednesday, but has fever of 103 today.  So mom won’t be here much this week.  Her focus:  ministry and authority.   Mine:  religious education and UU leadership development in non-western and poor contexts.


Only 6 or 7 D. Min. students like me and I have met only 1, plus Sarah.  Most new students are M. Div.—starting out to pursue the career of ministry.  Some are M.A. (Ph. D. students go through the consortium, the Graduate Theological Union.) Different denominations here, a few of them UU.  Total entering class 56; goal was 60.

Opening worship is lovely:  nice songs, nice welcomes from staff, administration.  Scripture readings:  Genesis, when God tells Abraham to pick up and move.  Walt Whitman, from UU hymnal readings:  “Song of the Open Road.” Testimonies from two 2nd year students:  Black woman raised by atheist & agnostic parents, has visited Buddhist & earth-based spirituality & Christianity, yet to choose a denomination.  Latino man, raised Catholic, gay with two sons.  Spoke of the support that is available from students, faculty staff.  Prayers of the people called out.  I remember young woman:  “The homeless teenagers at the agency in LA that  I left behind to come here.”

We hear the words of Unitarian Christian Albert Schweitzer:  “At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.”  Invitation to come up and light a candle and call out the name of someone for whom we are thankful and without whom we would not be here. (Again, this is aimed at those who are starting to pursue ministry in the M. Div. program more than us in the D. Min. program.)  I light a candle and thank my senior colleague, Doug, for his generosity, flexibility and some degree of anxiety in supporting me as I take time away from church to pursue this.  Admissions staffer/minister JoEllyn gives us the benediction:  Be not afraid.  (I’m not.  I didn’t pick up and move across the country or quit a lucrative career or uproot a family.)


Move over to Ecumenical Center, a church between Starr King School and PSR that houses many offices and a large sanctuary rented to a Unity church.  All GTU entering students are there to learn about registration, online and IT support, finances, etc.  Crowd includes nuns, Dominican brothers in long white habits, people from Asia, USA, Africa, Tonga, etc.  Boring but helpful stuff.


Going to lunch I meet a UU M. Div. student from the Oakland church.  Has child, 2, and husband who is tech engineer and music producer.  She is a  young lawyer who works for a state regulatory agency.  Part-time student.  Enrolled in Intro to New Testament and Spiritual Disciplines for Religious Leaders.  I tell her the reading load for New Testament isn’t bad and she might take a third course.  I love being Mr. Advice Giver.


At lunch table is African man entering the Jesuit school, white woman from Religious Science and white woman entering Episcopal school’s M. Div. program; she works in forensic psychology at Napa State Mental Hospital.  Another M. Div. student , young woman, will drive here 2 days a week from Modesto.


After lunch I go to the GTU library and find an empty study carrel to lay down my head for a nap.  Then back to chapel for a session on community building, words from the school’s president, and an ice breaker exercise.  We’re broken into small groups and have 90 minutes together to get to know one another.  A woman with grown kids and a former career who never pursued ministry because she was Catholic.  Then went to Methodist church and was asked to give a lay sermon, and the light bulb went on.  Two young women, one a Christian only since 2006.  Young man born in Philippines, grew up in California.  Our facilitator is former university professor of cultural anthropology and sexuality, now 2nd year M. Div. student.  Gay man, raised atheist in Holland.  Attended LGBT City of Refuge church in SF, let by charismatic Black woman pastor.  Became a Christian and now pursuing ministry.  Solid, eloquent, gentle, and smart.  Amazing depth of talent and soul in the students I am meeting at this place.  Restores my hope in mainline Protestantism.


We take a tour of campus.  He points out Starr King School for the Ministry, notes it is UU, nods to me.  I restrain myself telling them all about the Rev. Thomas Starr King but do mention that there is an Islamic studies program at the school.  (I got my M. Div. in Chicago, at the other UU seminary.)


At dinner I meet a young Black man, an activist from Oakland who is the head of security at a large hospital, and an even younger one who moved here from Houston to pursue ministry.  I get my dessert and go sit by a young white guy eating alone.  He’s a Ph. D. student in Hebrew Scriptures, got his M. A. in Virginia, is Presbyterian.  I get to brag about the Hebrew Bible prof I had at the University of Chicago when I was in seminary.  Otherwise I feel quite ignorant.  Counting courses, comprehensive exams and dissertation, his program will be 7 years long.  Good thing he’s young!


Ice cream social after dinner and then a meet-the-faculty session.  I greet the president, who remembers me from a lunch for prospective students back in January.  I meet his wife, who is a sign language interpreter for the police and court systems.


Fourteen of their 16 professors are here, a very diverse group in terms of age, ethnicity, national background, denominational experience, and research interests.  Preaching, pastoral care, Christian ethics, spirituality and leadership, arts, Hebrew Bible and archeology, New Testament, church history, religious education (this prof is a Korean immigrant and she’s my advisor), American spiritual studies, sexuality studies, and on and on.  Very easy-going and hospitable group.


Spirituality professor says: Spiritual practice can prevent “compassion burnout” and provide a deep anchor point.  But he unexamined spiritual practice is vulnerable to manipulation.  History professor invites us to “hang out with the ancestors”—it can put some ground under your feet.  RE professor teaches pop culture and theology, notes that many younger adults have never been to a church building and they have developed their spirituality through pop culture.  We need to understand and engage with that.  Pastoral theology professor specializes in gender and sexuality as well as psychology and cults.  About the resistance and battles over sexuality in the Mainline churches, he says that much of this strife may reflect that theological education hasn’t done a good job preparing religious leaders for dealing with sexuality in the church.

Hebrew Bible and archaeology professor says that part of archaeology is to give voice to the voiceless of ancient times, because 95% of the population were not represented in scriptures, the production of which was controlled by the elites of society.  (And yet, I realize, those radial social prophets still got included!)

Professor in the Swedenborgian House of Studies (and endowed program) has a lit and American studies background.  Swedenborg’s name “appears all over progressive 19th century politics, religion, culture.”  Has  a book project on “the emergence of a viable American environmentalism” and he mentioned our guys Thoreau and Emerson.  He’s also teaching a seminar on the recent and continuing “God debate” in popular culture.  Most respondents to the “new atheists” have been literary writers.

Another prof in the Swedenborgian House of Studies says that “the center and depth of the different traditions is when they ‘walk the walk’ [of social justice and service] together.”  He also teaches the spirituality of Protestant mysticism, which the Reformation (started late 1500s) tried to squeeze out of religion.   He’s also interested in “sport in culture,” an says that 1/3 of media attention is devoted to sports and sports is the 7th largest industry.  “Sports is used as a spiritual practice by many. But it’s also used sociologically to oppress people,” in particular people of color, women, and those of minority sexual orientations.”

The arts professor is Bulgarian.  Says her first name means small drops of morning dew.  “Many Americans find it beautiful.  I don’t.”  Loves Byzantine art.   Is planning a multicultural course:  “to see as others see.”


Finally, the dean says:  Our primary goal is that we want you to … learn how to learn.



I wanted to take a class with almost all of them.

But I’ve got a job back home! I walked 40 minutes back to my friends’ home after a full 12 hour day.  Bed time!




Why Mr. Emerson Is Your Friend– Sermon for UU Church


Preached in Sunnyvale, CA, October 26, 2003

UUs of Petaluma, CA, September 26, 2004

UU Church of Berkeley, CA, July 17, 2005

Unitarian Church, New Bedford, MA, November 12, 2006

UU Congregation of Salem, OR, March 18, 2007

UU Society of Sacramento, CA, August 17, 2008

Eskaton Retirement Village, Carmichael, CA, August 21, 2011

Call to Worship                                                        Words of Gordon McKeeman

We are called to worship not by words spoken, but my miracles recalled:  a baby’s first cry, the petals of a rose, the templed hills, the restless tides of the seas, human love, human hope.

We respond with gratitude, with joy, with wonder at life’s boundless possibilities.

Readings        Poems of J. Rumi, read in Farsi and in English; “The Stream of Life,” by Rabindranath Tagore, from Singing the Living Tradition 


            Live in the moment, and appreciate every day.  Notice the beauty of the world around you, and learn from it.  Know that you are connected to all that is.  Trust yourself, be honest, dare to be authentic.

These are teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson.  As a mystic, he believed that all of life was united in oneness.  Emerson embraced life with astonishment.  As a writer and speaker, teacher and friend, Emerson encouraged people to enjoy life, to think for themselves, and to dare to be who they really are.

Emerson was born over 200 years ago, in May of 1803, in the city of Boston.  He died in 1882, when he was 79.  His first wife, Ellen, died when she was 20 and he was 21.  His second wife, Lydian, outlived him by 10 years.

Emerson was the son of a Unitarian minister in Boston.  He attended Harvard, and became a minister himself.  But his great contributions to our culture did not come from the pulpit.  His gifts to us came from his essays, lectures, poetry, and hundreds of personal journals—263 volumes of journals.  Emerson’s ministry was to challenge stagnant institutions and stale thinking.  His ministry was to encourage intellectuals to be bold and original.  His ministry was to encourage people he would never meet to trust their inner voice, and to see life as a never-ending process of growth and self discovery.

Even though he left both the ministry and the church, Emerson built on the spiritual foundation he had inherited from the Unitarian movement.  Back when Emerson was a teenager the first Unitarians in America had proclaimed that people are inherently good.  They said everyone is capable of growing toward the perfect goodness of God.  This potential for growth was shown by the life and teachings of Jesus.  They said that everyone has the right to read the Bible and that we should use reason in applying the Bible to our lives.  This Unitarian Christianity was Emerson’s religious inheritance.  He took this inheritance and ran with it.  Intellectually speaking, Emerson was the rebel child of Unitarianism.

Emerson’s career as junior minister to the First Church of Boston lasted three long years—or they probably seemed long to him.  By Emerson’s adulthood, much Unitarian preaching had become passionless, impersonal and abstract.  Writing sermons cramped his style.  As a pastor, “he sometimes set off to make calls [on parishioners] without detailed directions and therefore spent time visiting complete strangers who had the same name or lived in the same street as a parishioner.”  (RDR 91).  Moreover, he did not like serving Communion.  It seemed to him to be an empty ritual.  For him, to commune with the Spirit of Life was a much broader affair than eating and drinking.  The church’s ritual trivialized true communion.

Emerson and friends who were not satisfied with “the present state of philosophy, religion, literature and education in America” formed an intellectual discussion group known as the Transcendental Club.  (RDR 249)  Over several years its members included Bronson Alcott, George Ripley, Margaret Fuller, and Elizabeth Peabody, and some divinity school students, among other people.  At the beginning, this group had as many members as Harvard had professors:  eleven! (RDR 245).

Some people are thrown a bit by the word Transcendentalism as a label for this philosophical movement.  Emerson himself regretted the Transcendentalism label.  He preferred the term idealism.  (RDR 249)  By whatever term it might be called, this movement was the American version of nineteenth century European literary romanticism.  The features of such writing include an emphasis on the natural world, a view of human nature as full of the potential for good, and a preference for imagination and intuition over traditions and rules.  Emerson’s friends and favorite writers in Europe included Thomas Carlyle and Johann Goethe.  He got Carlyle’s works published in America.  He read Goethe’s works every day.  It took him 10 years to get through all 55 volumes.

Emerson read many things.  His advice to others was to skim and browse while reading.  Look for what you like.  “Skip the paragraphs that do not talk to you,” he said  (RDR 173).  The purpose of education and “the purpose of life is the development of the self,” according to Emerson.  In the schools of our own day, much education has been standardized.  Students learn to ask, “Will this be on the test?”  Teachers are pushed to teach how to pass tests more than how to express themselves.  Schools in our age may be no more standardized than they were in Emerson’s day.  But in any age, his message is radical:  read what you like; think for yourself, be original, see life as never-ending growth and possibility.

Though he lectured to thousands of people, and his essays were published widely, when Emerson wrote and spoke, he imagined he was giving advice to “an unknown friend,” or “an unseen friend.”  Happy is the writer who writes to this unknown friend, he said, rather than with an eye to what will sell, or what will please the public.  (RDR 200)  Emerson himself did not always please the public, to be sure.

For example, in the summer of 1838, by invitation of the graduating seniors of Harvard Divinity School, he gave the commencement address.  He told the gathering of new liberal Christian ministers about the failures of historical Christianity.  First, he said, it had made Jesus the teacher into a myth.  Second, it worshipped the Bible instead of the divine.  The church made it seem if the Bible was not just God’s word, but God’s only word.  Whereas others would say “God has spoken,” Emerson said, “God speaks!”  God’s word is too big to be held in an old book.  Look around you, he said:  God continues to speak.  God is revealed in the wonder of the world.  Look inside yourself:  God continues to speak; God is revealed through the voice in our hearts.  (RDR 290).  He encouraged those graduating ministers to be open to their own spiritual insights, rather than preaching about the spiritual views of people who were long-dead.  He said that everybody could be a prophet and a poet of the Holy Spirit.

For Emerson, no single book deserved to be sacred scripture.  We should write our own Bible.  We shouldn’t depend on the ancient stories of ancient believers—we should have our own experience of the Divine, our own relationship with the Spirit of Life.

The Divinity School Address received more attention and more criticism than anything he had written or spoken so far.  Emerson’s words offended the traditional Unitarians, especially those on the faculty.  A professor wrote a tract against it, calling it the “Latest form of Infidelity.”  It was the “foulest atheism”; it was nonsense. (RDR 299)

This hurt and unsettled Emerson.  He worried that the reaction against this address have reduced his audience for future lectures.  Because of this worry, “he gave away more than his usual number of free tickets,” writes his biographer Robert Richardson (RDR 307).

Even more, the pain of this experience fueled much of what Emerson would write years later in his essay “Self-Reliance,” according to Richardson.  The biographer explains:  “Self-Reliance” is Emerson’s essay “on the un-alienated human being.”  At first thought, it might seem that going along with the crowd is the way to avoid alienation—in a crowd you’re not alone, are you?  Yet if you are not known as who you are, there’s nothing lonelier than being in a crowd.  Emerson said this:  the person who would be an adult must be a non-conformist.

In today’s consumer society, we receive constant urgings to buy, to collect, to upgrade, to be in style, to be up to date.  Such urgings exploit our fears of failing to be part of the crowd.  Yet, for me, conforming to such urgings does not lead to connection with others.  It leads to alienation.  Emerson wrote:  “Insist on yourself.  Never imitate.”  (RDR 180)  That’s a slogan that grabs you, so much so that it could be an advertising slogan. “Insist on yourself.  Never imitate.”

Indeed, several marketing campaigns have used similar slogans:  “Express yourself.”  “Think different.”  “Be an individual.”  “Be your own person.”  “Be all you can be.”  “Have it your way.”  Yet such campaigns want us not to have it our way, but to have it the way they are selling it.  They want everybody to express themselves in the latest version or style or upgrade.  To use the language of self-expression to sell mass culture is to pervert language.  Perhaps this is what makes me feel alienated by it.

Sometimes Emerson has taken blame for promoting individualism to Americans, for promoting selfishness and the lonely worship of the private space.  Indeed, one could take his advice to mean just that:  Trust yourself, reject all conformity, express yourself.

Some of his own friends likely took it as advice to be self-indulgent.  Indeed, his wife Lydian thought they did, and she wrote a satire of his crowd.  She called it the Transcendental Bible.  To Transcendentalists, happiness does not come from doing good, or doing the right thing.  With sarcasm, she writes:  “Never speak of happiness as the consequence of holiness.”  Here’s another transcendental commandment:  “Loathe and shun the sick.  They are in bad taste and may un-tune us for writing the poem floating through our mind” (RDR 312)

I think that’s funny, but I don’t agree with critics who say Emerson gives us license to do whatever we want, to look only at our individual growth and our private needs.  His own life is an argument against selfishness.  It is a model for community involvement and activism.

He and Lydian lived the rest of their lives in Concord, Massachusetts.  Their house was big and busy.  They had relatives living with them, in addition to their own children.  They hosted friends for long stays.  Emerson served on the local school board, the cemetery board, the library board, and the committee that put on the Lyceum, a series of public lectures and other adult education programs.

With regard to social justice, Emerson protested the government’s eviction of the Cherokee Indians from their lands and relocation to concentration camps in 1838.  This is now known as the “Trail of Tears.”  Emerson was heartsick to see the government’s betrayal of a people.  He called it a “crime the really deprives us as well as the Cherokees of a country.”  (RDR 278)

He spoke out on many social issues:  “[He] wrote letters, collared friends, addressed meetings, and signed petitions.”  Emerson was a peace advocate and an opponent of slavery.  He demanded that President Lincoln issue an Emancipation Proclamation.  Indeed, Emerson opposed the Civil War so long as the purpose of it was only to keep the Union together.  He wanted war’s goal to be an end to slavery.

Emerson saw the inter-dependence of nature.  He used the example of nature to argue that we humans are dependent on one another.  He wrote:  “Every being in nature has its existence so connected with other beings that if set apart from them it would instantly perish”  (RDR 258).

In a poem to a flower, he wrote, “I never thought to ask . . . but . . .  suppose the self-same power that brought me here brought you” (RDR 178).

Emerson encouraged intellectual originality as much as religious originality.  He noted that young students “grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, …Locke, …[and] Bacon have given.  [But students forget] that Cicero, Locke and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote those books.”  (RDR 265).

“[Books] have no permanent value,” Emerson wrote.  “….When we are aroused to a life in ourselves [books] grow very pale and cold.”  (RDR 333).  I am sure he would say the same about his own books.  I think he would say we should not read his books for ageless truths, but should read our lives for new truths, and read the natural world for new revelations.

At least this is what I choose to think he’d say, for some of Emerson’s essays and lectures are hard to read through.  His language is flowery. His essays do not build arguments toward a conclusion.  Rather, he wrote in aphorisms, short declarative sentences.  For example:  “We are always getting ready to live, but never living” (RDR 180)

His essays are filled with such quotable quotes; they are, in Richardson’s words, “great collections of sentences on a single topic.”  (RDR 202).

Emerson didn’t think he needed to prove such statements.  They came directly from his intuition.  He trusted his unseen friends to get what he said, and to either accept it or reject it.

In an Adult Religious Education class at the Sunnyvale church (which I served from 1997-2007), a young woman wrote about meaning in her life.  I got her permission to quote her words:

What makes life meaningful to me relates to my capacity to think and live originally.  Do not expect to find a pierced belly button or blue hair on me. That is someone else’s idea of originality.  Mine is not daring to be different, but daring to understand and conduct myself on my own terms, fully aware of the definitive scripts society has for me as a straight woman, a wife, a mother and not much else.  Life is meaningful when I look at the unbearable flaws in my character and find myself still lovable, when I am peaceful enough to take care of myself, thus enabled to take care of others, when I have the capacity to take joy in others’ happiness and to feel others’ pain, when I am sensitive enough to experience an act of vision by which I see meanings in everything and anything, and when I am motivated to think harder and longer until I can put in words ever-present buds of flickering thought or emotions which make my head and heart swell.

I told her that this was very Emersonian—“daring to understand and conduct [herself] on her own terms, [while being] fully aware of the definitive scripts society has for her.”  I asked, “Have you read Emerson?”  No, she said.  My response was, “Well, now you don’t have to!”

We don’t have to read him, but we might be surprised what we find in all that flowery language.

Emerson called for the independence of spirit, but not for spiritual isolation.  Instead, he stressed our oneness and our mutual responsibility.  He warned us not to “obey the private impulse to the exclusion” of our common humanity. (RDR 295)

He believed that what is common to all people is greater than those traits that set us apart.  To Emerson, self-reliance was not personal whim or selfishness, “as if [a person] were . . . severed from all other beings.”  He wrote: “It is one soul which animates all [people].”  (RDR 249, emphasis mine).

Emerson spoke about the need for self-respect in a world that wanted people to conform to its demands.  (RDR 233)  The world still wants you to conform.  Emerson spoke about the need for self-expression in a world that would rather keep you in a category.  The world still wants to keep us in categories.

To express yourself you need courage.  To respect yourself  you need courage.  Emerson’s life was a ministry of encouragement to his unseen friends.  Emerson’s words were a ministry of encouragement.

Live in the moment, and appreciate every day.  Notice the beauty of the world around you, and learn from it.  Know that you are connected to all that is.  Trust yourself, be honest, dare to be authentic.  So may it be.

Please do not duplicate or send as email without permission.  Not to be copied for posting on any Web site.

Source Consulted:  Robert D. Richardson, Jr.  Emerson:  The Mind on Fire.  Berkeley, 1995:  University of California Press.  All my page citations refer to this book.

Sexuality, Savage Love and theological ethics: Monogamy in the Age of Dan Savage

This cover story in the recent issue of The Christian Century magazine is very interesting, and it’s bold that they would run it.  Of course, the pastor who writes the article does not give much detail about the topics Savage covers, only mentions the great range of diversity that’s out there.  His focus is on Dan’s emergence as a source of relationship advice and his ethical deliberations and categories.  I’ll be looking for the letters to the editor in the next few issues!

Read it here:

Protected: Youth Bridging Ceremony– Sunday, August 21, 2011

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An Invitation to My Congregation this Sunday–August 28–at 9:30 am or 11:15 am services–KIDS too!

I’d like to invite you to attend one of the services this Sunday with me at my congregation, the Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento.  We have two services, and both are for all ages:  9:15 and 11:30.

This Sunday, August 28, is our annual Ingathering Service, when we start a new church year.  Many UU churches around the country have a Mingling of the Waters ritual, in which people bring small jars or bottles of water representing summer activities (like vacations, trips to a river or lake, backyard fun, a neighborhood fountain, or the kitchen sink) or representing our reflections on life the past several months.  Individuals and families bring the water up and tell what it represents or where it came from.  (There are jars of water up front for those of us who forget to bring any water to the service.)

Doug Kraft, our lead minister, will give a brief homily, and our new music director will lead our hymn choir.  If you’d like to join me for one of the services, let me know.  You may want to arrive 10-15 minutes early to find your way in, make a name tag, and fill out a visitor card.  Please also plan to stay afterward for refreshments.  The congregation likes to welcome guests.

ABOUT CHILDREN:  This service is for all ages, so we can gather as a community across the generations.  (However, there is a nursery staffed by two people to welcome kids up to age 5, and there’s also a Baby Comfort Room in the library behind the sanctuary, with sound piped in.)  But we do have a Religious Education program for children and teens.  That starts at 9:30 AM on Sunday, Sept. 11.

On that day, volunteer leaders and teachers will get to know the kids and youth in their programs, and we’ll take group pictures of every class level (Nursery, Spirit Play for grades 1-5, Junior High Youth Group for grades 6-8, and Senior High Youth Group).  Religious Education (or Sunday School) will take place only during the first service, at 9:30 AM.

Music Circus–summer shows in Sacramento: “Miss Saigon”
August 25, 2011, 10:21 am
Filed under: Musicals), Reviews, Theater (Plays | Tags: , , , , ,

John, Mark and I saw the last show of this summer’s Music Circus at the Wells Fargo auditorium at H and 11th.   I missed  two shows of the series:  “I Do, I Do,” by choice, because I wasn’t into seeing it, and “Annie, Get Your Gun” because I was out of state.  They said the latter show was the best of the summer, and I missed it!  (And still have never seen it.)  I got 4 stars in the Bee.

John predicted “Miss Saigon” would get 3 stars, and today it did.  (Link to review at the end.)  The local NPR reviewer said “mixed results,” but he found good things to say about it as well, and like me he favored the second act.  I’d say go see it if you’re interested and have $45 to spare and don’t need to see a helicopter and car inside of a building.

I had almost begged off seeing “Miss Saigon,” since I remember the criticism of it:  major special effects on stage with some loud, forgettable music tacked on.

The first act was loud–lots of volume and strong voices–but I had trouble making out some of the lyrics.  This hasn’t been the case with other shows.  (Of course, with familiar songs from other musicals, it’s easier to follow the lyrics.)

It was also quite melodramatic.  Yet, by intermission, though I was not in love with it or gripped by the story or the music I was glad I was seeing the show for the first time (it had run on Broadway in 1990 and must have toured everywhere by now).

And I was struck by the misery and tragedy of it:  devastated and poor Vietnamese young women trying to survive, being pimped out to American soldiers.  War-torn and fearful Vietnamese people pleading not to be left behind as Saigon was falling to the Communists and the United States was withdrawing after a decade of military action.  Confused G.I.s over there, on the verge of being lifted out and plopped back into a divided and war-weary American society.

The second act was very strong, and by the end I thought it was a great and important show, if still not tuneful. It was like an opera in that nearly all dialogue was sung, and the music gave the singers a chance to show vocal range and how long they could hold notes. (Very long.)   There was no helicopter on stage, thank God.  That, of course, was the big appeal of the Broadway production.   Instead, during the second act’s flashback to the 1975 evacuation, there was the blare of ‘copter rotors just outside the ramp up from the stage off toward one side.  (Music Circus is in the round, so the stage is in the middle and actors and props come in from four long runways [the aisles] which slope up from the stage.)  So the G.I.s fled up the ramp into the open hole where bright strobe lights glared and dry ice billowed.  It was scary to imagine going up toward that noise and light–and poignant to behold the Vietnamese left behind chain link fence down on stage. When the helicopter took off,  you could hear the roar increase as it seemed to fly over the center of the theater and then hear the Doppler effect as it flew off.  This use of the auditory and imaginary capacities felt to me more effective than a copter over the stage would have.

Spoiler alert

Borrowing from “Madame Butterfly,” the story is about an Asian woman who falls for an American (a soldier this time, not an official) who leaves her, and she kills herself. I forget if Butterfly had a child, but in this play, Kim has an Amerasian son fathered by Chris, her American beloved.  She’s tracked down by her cousin, to whom she had been promised when 13 years old and whom she rejected after she met Chris.  He is a commissar, and he wants to marry her now.  When she reveals the toddler to him, he wants to kill him, and nearly does with a knife, but she shoots him with the gun that Chris has left her.  (Childhood trauma #1.)

Later, when Chris and his wife come to Bangkok to meet her and the son that Chris belatedly found out about, Kim is devastated to know he is married, since she has endured so much to wait for him.  She sends off her little boy to live with Chris, his wife and their other kids in the U.S., though of course they first resist this and want to support her and the boy so she can rear him in Thailand.  She wants him to grow up in the U.S., and sends him off.  (Childhood trauma #2.)

Then, when the boy steps toward his strange new parents, back in her home his mother takes the gun and kills herself.  Chris goes back, sobs and cradles and kisses her as she dies.  (Childhood trauma #3.)

I avoided reading the plot summary, as I wanted to be a little bit surprised.  I read it afterward, and found there were only a couple of minor points I had missed.

I believe we are due for a sequel.  The boy would be in his mid-30s and if he’s not had PTSD treatment (along with his dad, Chris), then the next play would be about the mess of his life and would end with either his recovery or his own demise.

Some of the other shows this summer seemed to race to the conclusion in the second act:  “The Producers,” “Anything Goes,” and “Oliver.”  This one didn’t.  The second act took its time, with the 1975 flashback and a couple of numbers.

One of them was “Bui Doi,” an anthem about the Amerasian children left behind by G.I. fathers who had impregnated Vietnamese women.  It was poignant, harsh but tuneful, and also earnest.  It sounded like a telethon theme, as pictures of kids hung down from the ceiling.  Perhaps it has been, and perhaps it should be.  Our fathering of those kids and abandonment of them is one more tragic outcome of our cruel misadventure in Vietnam.   It makes me think about the ongoing fallout of our long occupation of Iraq and future tragic legacies if we ever leave.

Another strong number in the second act was “The American Dream,” sung by the man called “The Engineer,” a pimp, bar owner, entrepreneur, prison camp survivor, and man hungry to get to the U.S.  The song was angry and satirical (and he sang to a glittery, dollar-bill decorated and flag-draped papier-mache Statue of Liberty prop).  It didn’t carry forward the plot much at all, but it held off the tragic end and added a more political and socially critical bite.

I think if it takes melodrama and pyrotechnics to get lots of Americans to expose themselves to some of the tragedy of our history, then so be it.

Here is the Sac Bee review.

Clown Circus: Times of mourning and remembrance for surving Swan Brother

Last Sunday after church we had our annual visit by the Swan Brothers Clown Circus, a local company in business for 37 years, nearly the longest running independent circus on record.  Les Corbin, a church member and tax preparer, does the circus’s tax returns and asks them to do a show for our kids in lieu of payment.  Thanks, Les!  I’m sure the circus has done lots of birthday parties but not too many churches.

This year, only one brother came: Zippy, a.k.a., Andy Swan.  His brother died last December.  There’s an article on the front page of the Our Region section in Thursday’s Sacramento Bee.  Read the story  at this link.

Our Sunday Religious Education class had a tone of somber reflection rather than anticipation of the circus that was to happen.  Alec, a 5-year-old, disclosed to his fellow RE kids that High Top (a.k.a. Mike Swan), had passed away.  This led to an important spiritual conversation.

But not long after that, there was a big crowd of squealing kids this past Sunday, but I was not able to stay long. (We had a three-ring circus of our own:  Greeter/Usher training and lunch, an info session for parents on the Our Whole Lives sexuality course for 7th & 8th graders, a meeting of our Master Planning Facilitators to look at the architect’s visionary plans, and two other meetings I’m now forgetting!

I have enjoyed working with the Swan Brothers and extend my condolences and prayers to Andy on this great loss.  I also cheer him on as he goes “on with the show” without his brother and sidekick.